“Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars.” By Sandra Scalise Juneau. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 192 pages. Hardcover: $29.95.

It isn’t often that a cookbook also doubles as a spiritual read, but Sandra Scalise Juneau’s book, “Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars” does fit that category. Though obviously filled with recipes, it also includes the history of these altars, a collection of prayers in both Sicilian and English and a foreword by the archbishop of New Orleans.

It was the author’s desire to insure that this unique and beautiful tradition did not get lost that was the inspiration for this book. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the preparation and celebration of St. Joseph altars was on the wane, particularly in New Orleans where the tradition had been strongest.  “After the passing of those Sicilian immigrants who came to New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century and who brought the tradition to us, I, like so many of Sicilian heritage, thought all would be forever lost,” Juneau says.  “But over the years I have given lectures and classes on the topic, and many individuals and groups have shown enthusiastic interest. In particular, I am always delighted by the curiosity of those learning about the altar for the first time.”

Although the author shares with us many recipes that were passed down through her own family, a great deal of her time and effort went into collecting recipes from other families as well. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it became my mission to seek out recipes and preparation methods … in an effort to document those that otherwise might have vanished,” Juneau explains. “Researching and restoring lost recipes was, for me, like breathing life again into treasured family traditions.”

The tradition of St. Joseph altars is a very old one, dating from perhaps the 12th century. It is believed that around that time, a devastating drought occurred in otherwise lush Sicily; crops dried up in the fields, and the people were in danger of starving. Relying on their faith in St. Joseph to sustain them through this time, they promised to forever commemorate his feast day in return for his help.

Help came in the form of the fava bean, which unlike their other crops, was able to grow in the parched earth. Because of this lowly legume, the Sicilians were able to survive the drought; to this day the fava bean is a symbol of hope for them and is part of every St. Joseph festival.

St. Joseph altars are not reserved just for those of Sicilian heritage, however.  Juneau expresses her delight in the fact that many different ethnic groups have adopted this tradition. They have also spread far beyond Louisiana and Sicily; today one can find people celebrating with St. Joseph altars throughout the United States as well as Canada, Mexico and Australia.

In addition to copious amounts of traditional food, there is a ceremony called Tupa-Tupa, or the “knocking on three doors” which is reminiscent of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem. There is also the “Feeding of the Saints” which occurs just after the St. Joseph altar is blessed. The spiritual significance of these altars is all-encompassing, and one of the memories the author treasures most is hearing her grandmother pray softly under her breath all the while she prepared the food for the feast.

If you are interested in preparing a St. Joseph altar, the author has included every detail you will need to know to do so. One suggestion, however: as these preparations can be large and time consuming, it would be a good idea to assemble plenty of people to help. It might also not be a bad idea to practice some of the recipes ahead of time. I would recommend this book – and the celebration – for a family or a group of families and highly recommend it for any parish named for this most wonderful of saints.

Author bio:

A native New Orleanian of Sicilian heritage, Sandra Scalise Juneau has created cultural exhibits for public display at the Hallmark Card Company in New York, the Louisiana World’s Fair and the Louisiana Folklife Festival. St. Joseph altars she designed remain on permanent exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans. She is also the author of the Bonne Bouchee culinary series. Juneau lives in Madisonville, Louisiana.

—Kay Winchester

—Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.